In a national survey taken before the start of the Persian Gulf War, a record number of American college freshmen responded that they were more likely than ever to participate in campus protests. The anti-war rallies of the last few weeks reinforced that the poll was correct, according to its sponsors at UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute and the American Council on Education.
“Before the war, I was speculating that the environment was the only issue that would galvanize all the disparate interest groups among students. But the war has come along to do it,” said Alexander W. Astin, survey director and professor at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education. “That the protests happened so fast, were so well attended, and generated so much energy showed that.”
The annual survey, released today, reported that the percentage of current freshmen who claim to have participated in demonstrations during their last year in high school rose to 39.4%, up from the previous record of 36.7% in 1989, and double that during the height of the Vietnam War.
About 7% of students said that they planned to join protest activities, the highest percentage since the study began in 1966. In 1968, only 4% claimed they would be politically active, although Astin said the percentage who actually wound up demonstrating turned out to be much higher.
About half of the 194,000 freshmen surveyed this academic year responded before Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in August. The rest answered by October, a few weeks before the United Nations authorized the use of force if Iraq did not withdraw. Researchers are not sure how much answers were affected by timing, but speculate that war rumblings caused a slight increase in the percentage of those who support more military spending--to 25.1% from 24.5% the previous year.
Tied in with the higher interest in campus activism is what the survey contends is somewhat of a shift away from the materialistic values of the 1980s yuppie era. There are mixed signals in those attitudes, partly caused by concerns among college students about the economy.
On the one hand, more American freshmen--42.9%--than in the life of the 24-year-old survey said they want to help change society, with concerns about the environment and racial discrimination most pressing. On the other hand, a record percentage--73.2%--also reported that a very important reason for attending college was the ability to make more money.
Students are increasingly seeking “a meaningful philosophy of life,” which the survey considers a non-materialistic goal. However, the 43.2% response this year in that category is about half of that during the late ‘60s, when the hippie counterculture flourished. So, despite more social concerns on campuses in the last few years, Astin said: “I think we have a different situation now than during the Vietnam days. A majority are still materialistic.”
Interest in business careers, which zoomed in the ‘80s, declined to 18.4% of freshmen, compared to 21.8% last year and 24.6% in 1987, the peak.
“There’s pretty good evidence that that is a reaction to the scandals on Wall Street and the savings and loan industry,” Astin said.
The pursuit of engineering careers is showing declines in recent years but interest in law and medicine remains very strong.
At the same time, more freshmen are considering careers viewed as helpful to humanity but not especially well paid. About 9% said they were interested in becoming teachers at elementary or high schools, up from 8.2% last year and the low of 4.7% in 1982, but still well below the late ‘60s when nearly a quarter of freshmen considered teaching. Nursing is attracting more, but still a small percentage of college students: 3.8%.
The majority--54.7%--of college freshmen, surveyed at 382 four- and two-year schools, described themselves as politically middle-of-the-roaders, about the same as they have for the last few years. The percentage describing themselves as liberal or far left was 24.4%, slightly higher than the previous year but still well below the peak of 38.1% in 1971. Meanwhile, 20.9% said they were conservative or far right, a bit less than in 1989, yet substantially above the low of 14.5% in the 1973 survey.
According to the study, known as “The American Freshman: National Norms for Fall 1990,” students hold many liberal views on social issues except for drugs and crime. For example, 65% support keeping abortions legal and 57% approve of mandatory busing for racial integration in schools. But, 66% think that society shows too much concern for criminals’ rights, 79% favor the death penalty for heinous crimes, and only about 19% want marijuana to be legal.